I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien,
I'm an Englishman in New York, London,
Everybody talk about pop muzik
Sting - 1987
M – 1979
Porlock may have been ill suited for the pursuit of solitude and writing but so
many places promote a greater feeling of unease. Not that New York itself should
be singled out as having ever caused me undue discomfort. Hence the addition of a
couple of other fine cities courtesy of M's synth classic. That and the fact that
the thought of having a whole section of this book associated solely with that whale-song
loving, tantric Geordie git would simply be too awful to bear.
New York in fact, has been able to boast of a real gem of an establishment where
any suffering is wonderfully relieved. The perfect place to escape with an atmosphere
so unique and timeless that once inside, Outside could be anywhere. Once those doors
swing shut behind you you're no longer in New York, you're simply in “Clarke's”.
Nestling on the corner of 55th and Third and dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Manhattan's
Upper East Side, P. J. Clarke's was arguably, until the demise of the World Trade
Centre, New York's most famous two storey building. From the white-aproned bartenders
behind the worn wooden bar to the pressed tin ceiling; the stained and leaded glass
and THAT men's room complete with saloon doors to the stalls; Clarke's has always
stood squat and defiant while the rest of Manhattan rose (or fell) around it.
I first discovered Clarke's on a three week tour during which we zig-zagged our
way across America from Alaska to a final three days in New York. Besides work we
had another, far more challenging, mission: It was our avowed intent to drink Guinness
(among other things) in every town we visited in search of a decent pint. Such is
the exuberance and folly of youth. It was, as you might expect, a largely unrewarding
exercise. And then finally we crossed the threshold of Clarke's. Not, you understand,
that the Guinness in Clarke's was of any great quality. Rather Clarke's scored in
one very simple area and proved an indisputable exception to the rule “Quality not
Quantity”. With the bar and kitchen opening daily at 11:30 in the morning and last
orders for food not until three am the following day before finally chucking out
time crept up on you at four, there was ample time to develop a tolerance if not
exactly a taste for the libations on offer.
I guess that Clarke's must have been cleaned from time to time. But as you were
rolled out onto the street, wondering how you were to fill the hours until those
doors opened again, I preferred to think of it as simply being hosed down, ready
for a fresh intake. It was certainly a “rough and ready” kind of place, but unlike
the brittle brightness and cold steel of the buildings all around, those rough edges
had been softened and darkened by over a hundred years of smoke and murmurs.
The problem is simple: I hate tourists. The seeds of this rather excessive reaction
were sown when, as a student, I had to almost daily run the gauntlet of “attractions”
from Baker Street, along Marylebone Road, towards Great Portland Street. The first
thing to assault my delicate senses upon emerging blinking into the light from the
steps of the Tube below was not the noise of the London traffic, or the oppressive,
pollutant-heavy air. Far worse: A professionally perky gentleman sporting a deerstalker
would enthusiastically gesture towards me with his meerschaum pipe and exhort me
to incline my step to 221b. There were undoubtedly occasions when this might have
proved the easier, if utterly pointless, option. Instead I would turn left and immediately
encounter the completely resistible temptation of the open-topped London Sightseeing
Bus. Surmountable though this obstacle was, it was abundantly clear that I was struggling
against a fierce tide... and then tourism's Leviathan would rise up to terrorise
and confound me: the European Bus Party – sporting the identifying mark to strike
fear into any native: The matching back pack. What little might remain of my benign
hail fellow, well met demeanour would be drowned in a sea of garish man-made fibres,
neon pinks, acid yellows. Tightly knit ranks of rucksack bearing students as impenetrable
as the Roman legion's Testudo.
In the context of such a beleaguered past it is perhaps forgiveable that I view
tourism slightly askance. Certainly I have no desire to become a tourist myself and
have others endure the associated horrors. Consequently, I now approach foreign travel
with a reticence that has to be checked in along with all my other baggage.
“Did you pack your emotional baggage yourself Sir?”
“Could anyone have interfered with your emotional baggage?”
“And how many items will you be checking in?
“Reticence, this small holdall, and the associated guilt of seven hundred years
of European warfare.”
“I'm sorry Sir, I'm afraid you have exceeded our rigorously enforced weight restrictions.
That will be three million pounds please.”
Whilst I can proudly state that I have never been, nor ever will be, the possessor
of the abhorred backpack, that is perhaps where my English pride should end. There's
only so much shame one can take and stepping into a fast food restaurant in Europe
to be greeted in perfect English when such a thing is far from assured in Blighty
hugely exceeds that degree of shame. Of course I attempt a token gesture – I'll fumble
my way through French; stumble over a few words of Spanish; rapidly reach inertia
in Italian. But is this guilt at my lack of fluency reasonable? Maybe not. And it
becomes more ridiculous the further you go: My Polish – pathetic; Hungarian – horrible.
And why should it be otherwise?
Yet guilt is rapidly becoming the default characteristic of the English. And of
course it's not just language, sport too offers some choice pickings. The Celts play
with passion and pride; the English with an unpleasant aloofness – cold. How is it
that English arrogance is condemned and Australian arrogance lauded?
Perhaps in these days of a united Europe we would do well to set aside these old
prejudices. And then of course the penny/Euro dropped: United through a common currency
the European states have prospered. The free movement of trade facilitated. But of
course it's not just a currency that unites them, it's a common language. A common
language that the noble English gave them all those hundreds of years before. So
cast off that burden of guilt. It's a vote of thanks we should be getting. Walk those
European lands with pride. Continental Europe's linguistic superiority was born of
its military inferiority. So once more unto the EU, dear friends, once more; or close
up the Channel Tunnel with our English dead. Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
cry “God for Harry! England and Saint George!”
Imperialism – the original and still the best.